Fine Gael reputation for prudence takes a battering
Government’s efforts to project itself as a sensible manager of the national finances now undermined
Minister for Health Simon Harris; the European Investment Bank’s Andrew McDowell and Werner Hoyer; and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the signing of documents for the EIB loan for the national children’s hospital, in December 2017. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The thing about Fine Gael, Minister for Social protection Regina Doherty told RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke on Wednesday, is that it is too prudent; too responsible with the public finances.
That’s what people say about them. Haven’t you heard?
“I think if anything, Sean,” Doherty reminded a nonplussed O’Rourke, “the thing that would have been levelled at Fine Gael over the last number of years is that we are excruciatingly and painstakingly prudent and boring when it comes to the economy. We make sure that the money that we spend is absolutely value for the taxpayer because we know how hard it is . . .
“We’ve been slow to give tax cuts; we’ve been slow to reduce USC because we are so prudent, if not boring, with regard to how we manage the public finances,” she concluded.
Rather quixotically, Doherty chose as her evidence for this proposition the current imbroglio over the cost of the national children’s hospital. You might have thought that the Venezuelan-style inflation of the costs of the hospital project, while Fine Gael Ministers remained resolutely uninterested, would suggest the contrary. But not so, apparently.
Doherty also suggested that if Minister for Health Simon Harris had handled the hospital overruns differently – perhaps by informing the holders of the purse strings, who might, you know, have been interested in controlling the costs – he might have ended up “looking like an eejit”. Well, thank goodness we have avoided that.
Alas many of Doherty’s explanations – Harris did not have the full facts, etc – were subsequently torpedoed by the revelation that quite robust figures were available to Harris months before a decision of the Government, which ran along the lines of, “Sure what can we do? We can’t cancel it now.”
Doherty’s justifications might have ended up looking a bit foolish. But to be fair to her, they do represent an authentic – if somewhat unwise, given the circumstances – articulation of Fine Gael’s sense of itself. It is precisely because Fine Gael is too prudent (boringly so, you understand) that it could not ergo have presided over a fiasco reminiscent of the heyday of Fianna Fáil’s Brian Cowen and Charlie McCreevy.
It couldn’t be that Fine Gael was wilfully reckless, they would argue. We are the party that cleans up Fianna Fáil’s messes. We are the party of good government. If there is a controversy, there is an innocent explanation for it.
Less benign view
This is fine if you’re talking to the Fine Gael ardfheis; it is less effective when speaking to the public, who have, alas, a less benign view of their political leaders. This disconnect always happens to parties that have been in government for a long time. It is seldom so obvious.
The truth is that, in government, there’s knowing and then there’s knowing
The problem for Fine Gael is that seen from the outside, if Fianna Fáil-esque recklessness with the public finances is not the explanation, then there’s only one other available: rank incompetence. Because the “nothing to see here” line from Government isn’t working, that’s for sure.
The truth is that, in government, there’s knowing and then there’s knowing. Lots of people know things; they might not have the full details, but they know, all the same.
It allows deniability (“I didn’t have the full facts”) and it allows governments under pressure to play for time (“We need to find out exactly what happened”). But government runs on information. Allied to the control of budgets, it is the source of power at the centre of any administration.
People know lots of things around government even if they haven’t been fully briefed, or have all the facts, or have all the precise details, or however you choose to describe it.
The children’s hospital controversy, I think, is deeply and profoundly damaging for the Governmen
And people around this Government have known about the rising costs of the children’s hospital – that’s why The Irish Times was able to report the story in the first place last December. Just like people around the Government know that the cost of the national broadband plan (Sure what can we do? We can’t cancel it now) has been skyrocketing. There might not be a paper trail, and they might have formal deniability. But people talk, and people know.
The children’s hospital controversy, I think, is deeply and profoundly damaging for the Government. Despite what Doherty might think, I fear that the message that the public may take from the controversy is not that Fine Gael is too prudent and really boring when it comes to the public finances, but rather that it is completely useless at controlling costs on capital projects and then won’t admit its mistakes. For a country embarking on a massive programme of building involving tens of billions of euro in public money over the coming years, that is not terribly reassuring.
The juxtaposition of the Government’s hardline stance on the nurses – which is actually fiscally prudent, whatever about being politically sustainable – doesn’t make the administration look tough but fair: it just makes it look callous and inconsistent.
The biggest political damage is that it undermines the Government’s efforts to project itself as a sensible manager of the national finances. The Taoiseach’s efforts to characterise the overspend as budgetary small potatoes compounds the damage. Better to acknowledge your errors and to pledge a firm purpose of amendment. Leo Varadkar’s big offer to the voters at the next election – the bit that is distinctive from all the other parties – will be his ability to manage the economy and return a dividend in the shape of a tax cut. That cause has been severely undermined. This is a significant moment.